Rush Limbaugh, Heritage Foundation: Let Fat Kids Go Hungry

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 8, 2010

A few weeks ago, a news report came out about how childhood hunger spikes during the summer when school is out of session and food-insecure children can no longer depend on school meals.  (Since that news story came out, the Food Resource and Action Center (FRAC) has published its full report, which you can read here).

In response to the news item, Rush Limbaugh had a particularly offensive broadcast (although with El Rushbo, it’s kinda hard to make such distinctions) in which he opined that “one of the benefits of school being out [is] . . .  your kids losing weight because they’re starving to death out there because there’s no school meal being provided”  He then suggested, among other things, that hungry kids should Dumpster-dive for food.  (More on the broadcast here.)

But it’s not just shock jocks like Limbaugh who take this stance that obesity and hunger can’t coexist.  In an interview given by Chef Tom Colicchio about testifying in Congress last week on the child nutrition bill, he mentions that a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation, also testifying, made a similar comment.  According to Colicchio, this person ”said that if children are getting obese, then maybe we should stop feeding them.” [Ed. update: Since publishing this post, I tracked down the testimony in question (by Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation) and, in fairness, it doesn't include this glib comment -- although that may have been Colicchio's takeaway impression, given that the Heritage Foundation opposes any increase in spending for child nutrition programs and uses obesity as one justification.]

I was curious about this statement, so I went to the Heritage Foundation website where I found position papers, including this one, that point to obesity in America as proof positive that hunger must be greatly exaggerated — and, of course, as a justification for limiting federal funding to feed the poor.   The Heritage Foundation also had a lot of fun with the supposed “flip flop” created by Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb childhood obesity, which are taking place as President Obama seeks to make good on his campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.  The paper asks, “So which is it?  Is the real problem here hunger, or is it obesity?”  Other conservative commentators have since jumped on the Heritage Foundation’s flip-flop bandwagon.

To me, it seems self-evident that hunger and obesity can co-exist among the poor.   However, to get my facts straight, I did a little research.

First, here’s a great story that ran this past spring in the New York Times on what the writer cleverly calls “The Bronx Paradox,” i.e, the fact that The Bronx has New York City’s highest rate of obesity (an 85 percent higher risk of being obese than people in Manhattan) while nearly 37 percent of residents in the South Bronx said they lacked money to buy food at some point in the past 12 months.  The report cites all the reasons you would expect for such a finding:  a lack of full service, reasonably-priced supermarkets with seasonal fruits and vegetables, a predominance of restaurants serving greasy, fried food, and the fact that poor people often work multiple jobs and longer hours, so they’re more likely to eat on the run and have less time to exercise.

My new friends at FRAC gave me even more information, citing all the reasons above, as well as the fact that:

  • those who are eating less or skipping meals to stretch food budgets may overeat when food does become available, resulting in chronic ups and downs in food intake that can contribute to weight gain;
  • the poor have limited access to health care;
  • lower income neighborhoods have fewer resources for physical activity (such as bike paths and recreation centers);
  • lower-income children spend less time being active during PE classes, are less likely to have recess at school, and are less likely to participate in organized sports;
  • there are high levels of stress among low-income families due to the financial and emotional pressures of food insecurity, low-wage work, lack of access to health care, inadequate and long-distance transportation, poor housing, and neighborhood violence; and
  • low-income youth and adults are exposed to disproportionately more marketing and advertising for obesity-promoting products that encourage the consumption of unhealthful foods and discourage physical activity.

It’s easier, of course, to deny the existence of hunger than it is to do something about it, and when “doing something” means increasing federal spending, you can be sure that there will be those on the far right who will look for every justification not to.    But we can’t let the issue of obesity give political cover to those who want to deny the fact that, every day in America, kids are going hungry.

And sorry, Rush, but Dumpsters are just not an option.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Em July 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

Nice. Would it be uncharitable for me to point out that Rush is not exactly a svelte little thing, himself? Because if it would, then I won’t say a thing.

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bettina elias siegel July 11, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Em: Your comments never fail to make me laugh. Keep ‘em coming. – Bettina

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Melissa July 9, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Hi! I’m new to your blog and I love it… I just wanted to share that I am not sure why we are feeding kids (who don’t need food assistance) in school. Is it necessary for a school district to provide meals for ALL students? I mean, if you qualify for free/reduced lunch, then there is a NEED there. If not, bring your own lunch. Budgets can be drastically reduced using this method. I’m just of the opinion that it’s not the educational system’s job to feed people (especially those who don’t need it).

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bettina elias siegel July 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Melissa: First, thank you for the kid words about The Lunch Tray – so glad you’re enjoying the blog! If you’ve read a few posts on the site you’ll see that often a reader’s question prompts a discussion for the whole readership, and that’s just what you’ve done today! Your question is a common one and touches upon some really big issues that I’ve been wanting to discuss, so let me prepare my post and then look out for it in the coming weeks. (I’ll also email you when it appears.)

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Viki July 15, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Just found your blog today and this issue as well as the one Melissa brings up in her comment really has me interested. I know that in the Downtown area of my city there is only 1 supermarket. It isn’t huge either. I call it a nutritional desert. After reading Mrs. Q’s Fed up for the last 6 months I’d have to say that most school lunchrooms are nutritional deserts too. So, is feeding the same high fat, high sodium, school food to lower income kids really what needs to be done? Yes, something needs to be done. People need help, kids shouldn’t go hungry in America, but what they are being fed for the most part is junk. It also teaches them that Junk is Real Food.
I can’t wait to see how you adress Melissa’s comment. On Fed up today a guest poster from Canada talked about the fact that most of the schools there do not serve lunch at all. All the students bring their lunch. (A snack is provided in the morning, evidently parent volunteers attend to that. recipes provided on the schools blog) I was amazed. It caused a shift in my thinking. I started thinking What IF! Then I thought this couldn’t happen in America, we feed to many kids in the school lunch and breakfast programs.
Then I read Melissa’s comment and I had to write. Why couldn’t the program just feed those in need and provide actual Whole Food not processed because of the money saved.
I know, I Know, federal monies, big business, it will never happen, I can dream.

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bettina elias siegel July 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Vicki – So glad you found The Lunch Tray today and took the time to share a comment. Both you and Melissa (above) raise a really big question, one that I want to do justice. I’ve just finished a big, non-blogging writing assignment and hope to turn to this topic next, so stay tuned! – Bettina

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Vicki the Lunch Lady June 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Bettina,
Is there is a follow-up article to the great questions raised by Viki & Melissa? Maybe you could put an update with a link to it on this page. We may disagree politically but I enjoy reading The Lunch Tray. Thanks for bringing much needed attention to the topic of school lunches!

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